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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

The Future of the Public Library

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, October 25, 2015

What is the future of public libraries?


I have been asked that question over and over for a generation, as our society and community around us seems to be in a rapid-change mode.


My general answer is that the basics of why a public library exists are the same as a century ago; but what have changed are the tools that we use to gather information.


In the area of specifics however, audio-visual and other media has changed over and over; and continues changing.  We have moved from 16 mm and 8 mm films to DVDs with videocassettes in the middle.


Long playing records became cassette tapes and then CDs.


The standard book format is still around, but has been supplemented with e-books which finally found a usable format that works for the human reader.


The cataloging and processing of a public library collection has changed, with the elimination of the card catalog and its replacement with online databases containing the collections of many public libraries.


The Library’s Website has become another Branch Library, allowing access to a system’s online resources, both local and commercially-obtained.


Your Library Card now allows access of millions if not billions of documents provided by the typical public library.


But, overall, the public library remains in most communities while other agencies and institutions of days-gone-by have “gone by” and are no longer part of our communities.


At a recent meeting, the topic of “public library arrangement” was discussed with the name of a new theory of arrangement tossed around – BISAC – named for the Book Industry Standards and Communications organization.


Its roots date to 1975, but its application to public libraries has grown more popular in the past decade or so.


If you have been in a modern Bookstore, you have seen books arranged by BISAC.  It divides nonfiction books into subject categories for better browsing, and a simpler method of book arrangement.


It rids a library of Melvil Dewey.  (That gagging sound you hear is an Old Librarian thinking of the demise of Dewey Decimal Classification)


There are a total of 52 subject categories in BISAC, and a public library may use some or all of them to divide the collection.


BISAC seems popular in a smaller library, as the size of a library grows; the collection management is not as effective with the general subject categories.


The issue is that Melvil Dewey scares people, and the use of the numeric code scares many library users.


Other library users love Dewey and use the system to locate the specific materials they want in a library.


I think that most libraries can work with Dewey and make it work for the library and its users by dividing some categories, particular in the Fiction Collection.


At the Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County, we try to manage Dewey numbers by not extending them into long calibrations that would scare people.


I also think that Bookstores are places that people explore to purchase books, while libraries are places that people use to borrow books.  A lot of people today explore libraries from their home computers before physically arriving to collect the books.


Libraries in the 1830s arranged books on their shelves in the order in which they were acquired, and chronological numbers given to each book.  Of course, they were in no logical order.


In 1876, the Dewey Decimal System came along to recognize the subject of the book, and allow knowledge to be organized.  That was followed by the Library of Congress Classification which further separated knowledge for academic libraries.


BISAC has its place in libraries today.  The important point is that public libraries remain today as part of our society and community.